Rituals matters. They connect us to ourselves, our past, and to one another. They speak to the strong desire in us for continuity, for a future that somehow we will recognize. Rituals save us from anonymity.
They keep loneliness and meaninglessness at bay. Rituals span the gap between the seemingly unimportant realities and the infinitely important ones.
The recent Super Bowl reveals a vast arena of rituals: from tailgating to clothes, from food to betting, from annual parties to salsa dances after touchdowns. Even the commercials have developed their own rituals. There would probably be an uprising of complaints if Budweiser didn’t bring out their Clydesdale horses or Coca-Cola their polar bears.
Families develop traditions replete with rituals around holidays, birthdays, births and deaths. Children love rituals and often become disturbed when they are neglected. Something in us longs for the expected and the recognizable amidst the hustle and barrage of media sound bites and endless bombardment from all the new gadgets that supposedly keep us connected twenty-four seven to the world around us. We want to put it behind us and return to what has been known to us for the past five years or ten or forty.
Ash Wednesday is ritual at its best. For hundreds of years very little has changed. The words may have gone from Latin to the language of the people; and even they may have been reworded over time, but the reality has been amazingly unaltered. With all the liturgical changes implemented over the past sixty years. Ash Wednesday has survived being updated or adjusted. Our great grandparents would feel at home in Church on Ash Wednesday. Instinctively people know what the day is about and the ritual remains simple enough to speak for itself.
It may well be the day when Catholics are in Church more than any other day of the year. This fact deserves some attention. What is the attraction of the day and of the ritual? According to the research studies in the United States, the largest denomination is Catholics and the second largest is former Catholics (if that could be considered a denomination). I wonder how many former Catholics show up on Ask Wednesday or if all the crowded Churches with long lines for ashes are just Catholics who don’t go to Church often. Either way the ritual must be speaking to a deep need to belong, to a longing for God.
Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation, yet everyone is there at Church – a fact which again is instructive on how people respond to ritual more than to law. There are no requirements for getting ashes. Marital status, membership in a parish, anger at priests or bishops, frustration with Church policies, personal life-styles or hundreds of other realities that can separate us from the Church are not barriers on Ash Wednesday. Everyone is welcome. What does the day and the distribution of ashes mean to most?
Certainly everyone knows that Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is the six weeks before Easter Sunday when the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated. Theologically many probably do not know much more than that. The ritual of ashes is really bizarre in a way, which may well be its strength. There is no mistaking or covering over of the stark message. The rubbing of ashes on a forehead in the sign of the cross is clear. Jesus Christ died on the cross – ashes are a sign of death. Each of us is connected to this death, thus we each get the ashes, from youngest to oldest. And we walk around all day with the mark on our forehead – quite a visible sign.
Lent is often the time for many to “give up” things – candy, beer, gossip, desserts. More go to daily Mass or pray of bit more during the season. But the main point is Jesus. It is his death and resurrection that is front and center on our forehead and hopefully in our hearts. Something in us knows we have failed in many ways and there is a God who loves us even unto death. So we get ourselves to Church on Ash Wednesday, line up for the sacred ashes and perhaps often a silent prayer that we do better this year for the love of a God who pours himself out in love for us.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.